Hysterical. Unless the word is followed up by “laughter” and a story about that one time with that one thing you and your friends did, you probably don’t want this word applied to you in any way.
But for years—we’re talking 4th Century B.C. until the 1950s—hysteria was a common medical diagnosis, particularly among women. And, though it was common, the condition wasn’t really understood. At least, not from a modern standpoint.
Hypotheses as to the origin of hysteria varied through the years. At first, people believed that the womb detached and roamed through the body, disturbing vital organs. Later, Freud suggested it was repressed memories. Still later, it was thought to be too much brain activity.
And if wandering wombs and unconscious memories aren’t crazy enough for you, add in the fact that women’s sexuality was tied up into all of this, further complicating the matter. Because if hysteria wasn’t really understood, women’s sexuality definitely was not.
Now, against the backdrop of this confusion and absurdity, enter The Fainting Room, a one-woman show about hysteria, its causes, treatments, and the story of a young woman struggling through her “symptoms.”
Don’t be fooled by the stereotypes of this subject matter. This show is not for the faint of heart.
The Fainting Room was created and is performed by Becca Bernard and was part of the 2017 Minnesota Fringe. In this one hour performance, Bernard collapses the history of hysteria along with its causes and treatments into a show full of songs, jokes, and over-the-top characters.
Bernard keeps audiences on their toes (and not just because she asks for a little audience participation). She jumps through time and costumes, too, sometimes portraying a doctor, sometimes personifying a vibrator.
A vibrator? Why, of course. Vibrators were originally created as a treatment for hysteria.
The Fainting Room is a bit of a history lesson and a comedy all in one. However, though the background of hysteria (like the treatments, male dominance, and the societal perception of the condition) is important to understanding the show, that’s not where the true heart of the performance lies.
The main character is a young woman who arrives onstage with a cello and a veil. She’s just run away from the altar. Clearly, things aren’t going well. She doesn’t know what it is that she’s feeling, but she does know that she can’t deal with it. She seeks medical help, and the show loosely follows her journey through the different treatments offered throughout hysteria’s long history. Audiences come along for the ride as she accepts and rejects those treatments and as she explores themes of control, independence, self-awareness, and self-love.
Whether speaking through a mustache or singing a song, Bernard does well. Through comedy, she presents the complicated history clearly and effectively. You don’t need to have knowledge of hysteria as a medical condition prior to the show.
The Fainting Room reveals the absurdities of hysteria and, through a roundabout, comedic way, is an honest look at the struggles women have faced through the ages and still face today. It is pro independence, pro critical thinking, pro vibrator, and was a worthy addition to the Fringe schedule.
Local readers, if Bernard ever returns to a Minnesota stage, you’ll want to check her out. Non-MN readers, keep an eye out. She could be at a Fringe Fest near you soon.
*All facts taken from The Fainting Room show program or from the performance
The Fainting Room was at the Phoenix Theater during the 2017 Minnesota Fringe Festival. Unfortunately, the Fringe ended August 13. But never fear, there’s always next summer!
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